LEXINGTON, Ky. - One of the first concepts taught to children in school summarizes three elemental requisites of education as “The 3 R’s.” The irony of this phrase, of course, is that only one of the subjects begins with R.
Enter Chuck D - activist, author, rapper and the very public speaker of the group Public Enemy. This winter, he is touring college campuses and redefining The 3 R’s in a program titled “Race, Rap and Reality.” Its lessons are considerably more topical than reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
“This allows me to present an introspective note to the points I address in my music,” said Chuck D, who spoke recently at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. “It allows me to talk things out and maybe reach the collegiate mind that is surrounded by all these ideas being forced upon them or sold to them.”
For more than 25 years, Chuck D - born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour on Long Island, N.Y. - has been the social and political voice for Public Enemy, the New York rap group that redefined the lyrical parameters of hip-hop in the ‘80s with albums like “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet.”
Perhaps less known is that Chuck D, 48, also has been taking his views on race, music, free speech and the media directly to college campuses in non-musical forums for nearly two decades.
“You’ve got to know who you’re talking to and where you’re going,” Chuck D said. “When I talk about things like race, I try to present it from a world point of view. A lot of people in this country are conditioned with misconceptions and myths about race and how it fits into the rest of the world.
“One of the things that was different in the past was there was less interactivity with other human beings. Today, like minds have a better chance of being synergized just through technology than ever before. Still, young people can seriously get hurt by the race issue. They need access to information, not just some news analogy that’s been thrown in there.”
Throughout the history of Public Enemy, the media - specifically its portrayal of blacks and black culture - has triggered no small amount of ire from Chuck D. The introductory sentence of his 1998 book “Fight the Power” (also the title to a potent 1989 Public Enemy song) reads: “The 1990s have been filled with Black men being systematically ripped down and overexposed in the media like we’re the worst criminals on the planet.”
He has hardly pardoned it in the years since, but Chuck D has come to recognize sets of pros and cons in how the media has helped or hindered young minds on issues of race.
“It’s con if you let the media roll and go on without checks and balances,” he said. “It’s pro if you can actually take all the media and come up with some kind of consensus to add to a more thorough point of view. The problem comes when you rely on the media to tell you something and then not challenge it. I try to encourage young people to challenge information, challenge media, challenge anything that’s coming at them.”
Rap remains a vital means to get Chuck D’s views through to an audience. Chuck D visits college campuses every fall and spring semester, and Public Enemy remains an active touring enterprise. Last summer, the group celebrated the 20th anniversary of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
The years have seemed to only heighten the album’s social importance. The November 2003 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, devoted to what its editors termed the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” ranked it No. 48.
Did Chuck D have any idea that “Nation of Millions” would be groundbreaking?
Of course, he did.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I disappoint a lot of people when I say I wasn’t surprised by its success. But I don’t say that out of cockiness. We had to design a rap and hip-hop album in a way that it was going to be respected as part of a genre. Up to that point, respect for rap was kind of here and there.
“So we set out to make a ‘What’s Going On’ or a ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ of rap in 1988. It was one of the only times we walked away from a record going, ‘Well, that’s something. That’s going to have a life all its own.”
Chuck D has been critical of the media over the years, but he has become equally wary of what he says are materialistic and “lazy” attitudes reflected in modern hip-hop.
“I would just like to see hip-hop nowadays have a better all-around work ethic. I want the performances to be better, especially for people who come out and pay to see an artist they love and respect. So I’m hard set against artists who are lazy in their art.”
And who best reflects the ideal working inspiration for budding hip-hoppers? Chuck D points to one example without hesitation: President Barack Obama.
“I think Barack Obama is the ultimate rapper. He knows what he’s talking about. He acts his age. He’s a powerful speaker with a great voice that moves a crowd when he opens his mouth. He sets a standard that rappers and singers should aspire to get anywhere close to.”